Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Hot Chocolate

The bus arrived in Seattle at 4:30PM. Wynter had been traveling for almost forty hours with little sleep and nothing but the sandwich to eat.

She stumbled out of the bus and found her way to the taxi rank. She waited in line, shivering, until she reached the front, and got into the back seat of the taxi as she’d seen other people doing. She showed the address to the driver.

He eyed her suspiciously. “You got money?”

She gave him a quick peek at the cash in the paper bag, and he seemed satisfied. She’d counted it several times on the bus. She had nine dollar bills.

The taxi pulled out into busy traffic. The meter ticked over, even when they were stopped at lights. Five dollars, six… How far away was Caleb’s house? Nine dollars. Ten. She clutched the paper bag. She couldn’t pay. She should give the driver what she had and ask him to stop. Joy hadn’t covered this situation in her instructions. She curled up and refused to think about it.

The taxi stopped and Wynter woke from a doze. It was dark now.

“Here we are, young lady. Seventeen-fifty.”

She handed the driver the paper bag and got out while he counted the cash. They were in a long, quiet street lined with bare trees. The air was still, with a cold dampness she’d never breathed before. The single-story house before her stood in a row of similar-sized houses, each a different shape. A driveway led to a wide metal door, a bike was chained on the porch, and the street light revealed a neatly cut lawn. Wynter checked the address on the slip of paper, though she’d memorized it hours ago, and checked the number on the gate.

She went through the gate and started up the driveway.

“Hey!” The driver had gotten out and was calling over the roof of the taxi. “You’re eight-fifty short.”

Wynter ignored him. She turned down a narrow path cut through the front yard, climbed two steps to the porch, and knocked on the door. Surely Caleb would give the driver his money.

A boy answered the door. He was only a few years older than her—definitely not Caleb, who was supposed to be older than Joy. This boy was tall with dark scruffy curls and blue eyes, and had a pen in his hand. He looked at her very oddly, like he’d never seen a human being before in his life.

“Is Caleb Henry Fairn here?”

“He’s not home yet.” The boy’s curious expression deepened.

“Thank you. I’ll wait for him.”

She sat on the porch, facing the street. She expected the boy to close the door. Instead, he stepped out.

“Uh, who are you?”

“I’m waiting for Caleb.”

The taxi driver was marching up the driveway. “She owes me eight-fifty. You go in and tell your parents. Go on.”

“They’re not here,” the boy told him. He moved in front of Wynter. “Are you supposed to be here?”

“Yes.”

“You sure about that?”

“Joy sent me.”

He was suddenly very interested. “Joy? Where is she?”

Wynter wasn’t sure she should say more. “When will Caleb be home? I can only talk to Caleb.”

“I’m his brother, Jesse. You can talk to me.”

So, now there were two brothers Joy had never mentioned.

“Only Caleb,” she said. “Only Caleb.”

Jesse shook his head and took a phone from his back pocket. The driver tried to ask for his money again. Jesse waved him into silence and called someone.

“There’s a girl on the porch,” Jesse said into the phone. “A kid. She’s in sandals and shorts and she showed up in a taxi. She says Joy sent her. And the taxi driver wants eight-fifty.” He listened for a moment, staring down at Wynter, before ending the call. “Caleb’s on his way. He works at the base, not far from here. Come inside and wait.” To the driver he called out, “I’ll get your money. Gimme a second.”

He went in, hesitating in the doorway, waiting for Wynter to follow. She wasn’t supposed to go inside any house without Caleb. This might be a trick. Maybe it wasn’t Caleb on the phone. Maybe this wasn’t Caleb’s brother.

She didn’t move. Jesse gave up, went inside and returned moments later with a ten-dollar bill for the driver, who didn’t ask if he wanted change and didn’t give him any.

“He owes you one dollar fifty!” Wynter cried as the driver returned to his car.

“Don’t worry about it.”

Wynter didn’t worry about it. She was too relieved to see the taxi leave.

“You look cold,” Jesse said.

She was freezing. Winter nights in Tucson were cold, but not wet like this. It was an interesting sensation. Jesse disappeared inside again and brought out a blanket. He draped it around her shoulders and sat beside her on the porch step.

“You gonna tell me your name now?”

Just her name—no harm in that. “Wynter.”

“Like the season?”

“Yes. With a Y.”

“Wynter. That’s a cool name. And Joy sent you. Joy Fairn?”

In the Light, Joy’s second name was not Fairn. But if Harry Fairn was Joy’s father, and Caleb Fairn her brother, then Jesse would think Joy’s name was Fairn. Wynter gave a tight nod.

“Joy is my big sister, y’know,” Jesse said. “Where is she now?”

Wynter sucked on her lips and said nothing. She shivered under the blanket.

“If you won’t come inside, I’ll get you a hot drink, okay?”

In a few minutes he was back with a dark, sickly-sweet smelling drink in a mug. She sipped it. The sugar hit her brain like a sledgehammer.

“Oh, it’s good,” she said.

“I know, right?” He grinned and she found herself shyly returning the smile.

She sipped again. Warmth slid down to her belly.

Now he frowned. “You’ve never had hot chocolate before?”

“No.”

He scrutinized her. “You’ve come up from Arizona, haven’t you.”

She tensed under the blanket. How did he know that? She put down the mug and pulled the edges of the blanket closer around her.

Jesse didn’t ask any more questions. He stood up and leaned against the porch pillar, looking out at the street, and sometimes staring down at her. At last a black truck pulled up in the driveway and its headlights flicked off.

“That’s Caleb.” Jesse pushed himself off the pillar to stand straight.

A man got out of the truck. In the dark Wynter couldn’t see his face. He was even taller than Jesse, solidly built, and he wore a dark coat and pants and black boots. He strode purposefully across the yard toward them, nodding a greeting to Jesse.

“She says her name’s Wynter,” Jesse said, adding “with a Y,” like it was very important.

Wynter struggled to her feet, her legs stiff with cold. Backlit by the streetlight, Caleb’s face was in shadow. His hair was dark like Jesse’s, but cut short and neat. He loomed over her. For an instant she felt it was all a mistake. She wasn’t supposed to be here. Maybe she wasn’t here. Maybe she’d never left Arizona and this was all a dream.

No, this was real. She’d make it real. She resisted the impulse to take a step back. She stood her ground.

Then Caleb smiled at her—a tense, confused smile, but she recognized it. Recognized him, somehow.

“Wynter. Nice to meet you. I’m Caleb Fairn.” He stuck out his hand, very formally. She shook it—she’d never shaken anyone’s hand before. His hand was huge and warm. “You’re ice cold.”

“She wouldn’t come inside,” Jesse said.

“Let’s go in.”

Caleb ushered them both through the front door. The small entry hall was lit with a single lamp that left the corners in darkness. To the right, an archway led to a room with a big table. Books and papers were spread over the table, where Jesse must’ve been working, and a board game was set up at one end. On the other side of the hall was a tiny kitchen overlooking a living room. Wynter had read old novels about people who lived in houses, but had never been inside one before. She stared at everything.

“Sit,” Caleb said.

Wynter chose a large armchair in the living room and perched on the edge of the seat.

“Find Wynter some warm clothes,” Caleb told his brother. “A sweater, some socks.”

Jesse disappeared into the back of the house. Caleb sat on the couch and leaned forward, his brow drawn low. He had very blue eyes that captured her gaze.

“Where’s Joy?”

“She’s in Los Angeles. She only had enough money to buy one ticket to Seattle.”

“Where were you before LA?”

“Arizona.”

“The ashram?”

Wynter nodded. Her throat tightened in anticipation of questions about the ashram, which she wasn’t supposed to talk about.

“I’m Joy’s brother,” Caleb said. “I’d like to help her.”

“I know. I mean, I didn’t know. She just told me. She said you would help.”

“I will help her in any way I can.” His brow furrowed. “We haven’t seen her since we were little kids. Is our mother… is Miriam in Arizona?”

“She’s in Thailand.”

Thailand?

“It’s a country in southeast Asia, east of India and north of Austral—”

“Yeah, hun, I know where Thailand is.” He patted her knee, a touch so brief she didn’t have time to shrink away. “Can you tell me why Joy took you with her when she left?”

“She’s my sister, too. My half-sister.”

Caleb drew in his breath. Behind him, Jesse stopped in his tracks before composing himself and coming forward with the clothes he’d fetched. Wynter took off her sandals and pulled the thick gray socks onto her dirty feet. Caleb helped her draw on the oversized sweater. When her frozen fingers fumbled with the zipper, he did it for her.

“Miriam Wild is your mother?” Caleb said, looking at her very carefully. His steady gaze anchored her in this world.

She was here. She existed.

“My name’s Wynter Wild,” she whispered.

Jesse stood behind the couch, clicking his pen as he stared at her.

“How old are you?” Caleb said.

“Fourteen.”

“Who’s your dad?”

“His name’s Malcolm. They were married for a while.”

“When’s Miriam due back from Thailand?”

“I don’t think… I don’t know. She went five years ago and I think she lives there now.”

“You haven’t seen her since?”

Wynter shook her head, chewing on her lip as Caleb rubbed his hand over his eyes, hiding his reaction. Then he closed his hands over hers. They were so warm, and hers so cold, it felt like her hands were buried under hot desert sand. But she wouldn’t pull away.

“Okay. Does Joy have a phone? Any way to contact her?”

“No. I left her at the bus station in LA. She said she’d follow me soon.”

“Does she have any money?”

Wynter shook her head hopelessly. Her desire to come to Seattle and leave Joy behind now seemed selfish and reckless. Would Caleb blame her for abandoning her sister? His sister. Their sister. She processed the implications. Caleb was her half-brother and so was Jesse. She was connected to two people on the outside. For her whole life she’d believed there was no one.

“The universe told me to come,” she said.

Jesse stopped clicking his pen. “What does that mean?”

“We saw a big white A on a mountain in Tucson, and we stopped in Blythe, from the poem, which is B. And then C for Caleb on my ticket. I read the signs and told Joy we were on the right path, that we shouldn’t go back to the ashram.”

Jesse got that look on his face again, like she wasn’t a real person. Click-click, click-click, went his pen. Wynter turned back to Caleb. Maybe she didn’t exist for Jesse, but she had to make Caleb believe in her.

“Joy’s on her way. She’ll explain everything, I promise.”

A rash promise. It might even be a lie. At the ashram, it never mattered if she told truths or lies. No one cared. Mostly she would say nothing at all and let them reach their own conclusions.

“How did Joy know where I live?” As Caleb spoke, he reached over the back of the couch and snatched the pen out of Jesse’s hand, making Wynter jump. Caleb clicked the nib in and handed the pen back, and Jesse stuck it in his pocket with a rueful look.

“She found your name on the computer,” Wynter stammered, unnerved by his sudden movement and the way Jesse accepted the rebuke without comment. Jesse was about Xay’s age, and she couldn’t imagine Xay acting like that. “She called Harry Fairn first, but… I don’t know. She called him and hung up.”

A strange, fleeting expression crossed Caleb’s face. “That’s our dad, up in Everett. I’ll call him. Jesse, heat some soup. Make toast or something.”

Jesse went into the kitchen and Wynter was alone for a moment as Caleb walked away, tapping his phone. From his side of the conversation she knew he was talking to Harry.

“…No, listen to me, dammit, that was Joy calling from LA. Did she say anything? Did she say where she was staying?”

Wynter crept forward to watch Caleb pacing the front room, his free hand rubbing his forehead in frustration. She could’ve told him Harry knew nothing. Joy hadn’t spoken a single word. Something in Harry’s voice had made her hang up instantly.

In the kitchen, Jesse had a pot on the stove and a can of soup in his hand. He clipped the can into a machine on the corner of the bench and it whirred, turning the can around.

“What is that?”

Jesse gave a sharp laugh of disbelief. “A can opener.”

He extracted the can and pulled the lid off a magnet in the machine. Wynter had used a can opener every day of her life since she was about seven years old, but never one like this. She looked at the machine carefully, trying not to be too obvious, wondering how it worked. Jesse emptied the can into the pot and busied himself stirring it.

She heard Caleb making another call, barking orders like he was used to being obeyed. As his tone grew ever more insistent, the tension made her nervous. Jesse offered her an apologetic look.

“I called the bus station in LA,” Caleb said, coming into the kitchen. “Persuaded one of their security guys to take a look around for Joy, but they didn’t see her, or remember seeing her.”

“She was there. We were there,” Wynter said, fearing he didn’t believe her story. “I left yesterday afternoon. Maybe she went somewhere. She still had some money left. Or, maybe she went to Disneyland.”

“Does she have eighty dollars?” Jesse said. “Cuz that’s what it costs.”

“Oh. Someone told me it was free.”

Jesse laughed again, earning himself a severe look from Caleb. Jesse had an easy smile that reminded her of Xay, and it was Xay who’d told her about Disneyland. As an American-born citizen, free entry into Disneyland is my constitutional right! he’d say, making fun of Roman who was born in Australia, though they were both raised there and considered it home.

“Where do you think she might’ve gone?” Caleb said, taking a seat on the far side of the counter.

“She doesn’t know anyone. There’s no one to help, except…”

Caleb’s eyebrow went up, waiting for her to continue.

“Except the Light,” Wynter finished. “But we’ve left the Light. She wanted us to live on the outside.”

“I’ll call the Light office in LA tomorrow morning. You sit here and eat. Then you can have a bath, if you like. Warm you up.” Caleb patted the tall stool next to him. He shrugged off his coat. Underneath he wore a dark shirt with US COAST GUARD embroidered in white over one pocket, and FAIRN over the other.

Even her own brother was labeled.

While the soup heated and Jesse made toast, Caleb asked her to recount her trip from Tucson. Not knowing what was important, Wynter tried to recall every detail of the bus ride. She talked about the scenery and how it turned thick and green the further north she traveled. She described the bus’s velvety blue seats and named a dozen songs she’d heard on the radio, probably in the wrong order. She explained how the taxi driver got upset when she couldn’t pay. It was okay to tell him all this, because it was nothing to do with the Light. She must remember not to talk about the Light.

Jesse served out the soup and toast. It smelled so good. She had to eat slowly because the soup was very hot and the buttered toast scratched her throat, though it was all delicious. Caleb told Jesse to print off the bus schedule between Los Angeles and Seattle. Jesse looked like he wanted to stay in the kitchen, in case he missed anything, but he did what he was told.

“When did you last have something to eat?” Caleb asked her.

“I had a sandwich in LA. It’s okay, I don’t eat much.”

He frowned at that. Maybe she wasn’t supposed to say it, but she needed him to understand she’d be no trouble.

“Can I stay here until Joy comes?” Wynter said.

“Where else would you go?”

Was he ready to send her away already? Wynter didn’t want to leave, but she wouldn’t stay where she wasn’t welcome. She struggled to think of a plan.

“If you lend me $17.50, I could take a taxi back to the bus station and wait for Joy. She’ll explain everything much better. They have these long wire benches you can sleep on.” She’d like a blanket, too, but asking for one might be pushing her luck.

“You’re not going back to the bus station. Jesse and me will do that.”

She realized she’d misunderstood his query. She heard Roman’s admonishment: It was a rhetorical question, Wynnie. Don’t be so literal all the time. She was in the habit of being literal, of telling the simple truth, in the hope it would keep her out of trouble. Wasn’t always easy when you were holding secrets and when no one believed you anyway.

“If Joy shows up,” Caleb went on, “we’ll bring her home.”

Home. She wanted home. She was prepared to fight for it.

“If she doesn’t come, I don’t want to go back to Arizona.”

“Will you tell me why you left?” Caleb spoke in a gentle way that no adult had every used with her before. But now he was asking about the Light.

What should she say? She felt compelled to answer, somehow knowing it was safe, but Joy’s whispered words rang in her ears.

She said, “Joy married someone she didn’t much like.” That seemed like the safest answer. People married and divorced all the time. Like Miriam, and like plenty of other people at the ashram. “Are you going to send me back?”

“You can stay here for now, if you want to. You’re our sister, too.”

Her body felt weighed down, anchored to this world and this house by the connection he’d spoken aloud. She looked into his dark eyes in a face etched with concern and confusion.

“Thank you, I will stay.”

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